Trump supporters are operating on biological instinct

Trump supporters are acting on 10,000-year-old instincts.
Trump supporters are acting on 10,000-year-old instincts.
Image: Reuters/ Jim Young
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Donald Trump’s popularity—despite his lack of experience and questionable policy ideas—has mystified many political pundits in the US. But his ascendancy is no surprise to Rick Shenkman, author of a Political Animals published earlier this year, who writes on how human’s stone-age instincts are poorly suited to the modern political era.

These ancient instincts explain why so many are instinctively drawn to Trump, says Shenkman. Less educated voters are particularly vulnerable to Trump’s demagoguery, he says, as they have no alternative source of knowledge to counter their biological instincts. “His base is low-information voters and he’s just coming right out and saying it: ‘I love the poorly educated,’” he adds.

One of the strongest instincts is tribalism, says Shenkman, as we instinctively favor those with shared ancestry:

Since Donald Trump began his election in June, he’s been activating an ancient instinct in human brains, which is fear of the other. For many people, who lack other knowledge on which they can make their judgments about Mexican immigrants of Muslims coming into the United States, this winds up becoming a powerful trigger for their political beliefs.

But Trump is only successful at activating these triggers because the modern political system tends to confuse our biological instincts. Our brains developed during the Pleistocene era, around 10,000 years ago, at a time when we were living in groups of 25 to 150 people. Humans lived and worked with their political leaders, and so could learn whether or not they trusted them first-hand. Today, the process is entirely artificial and we “get to know” politicians from TV appearances.

Meanwhile, the natural human tendency to lie has also muddied modern politics. “We all have the idea that human beings seek out and care about the truth,” Shenkman says. “But a key part of the evolution of human beings was the development of deception. We’re all cheaters at heart.” Humans have long had the ability to deceive and even our closest relative, chimpanzees, have been found to lie.

Since our brain is uncomfortable with dissonance, if we’re told a politician we instinctively like has lied, we’ll come up with excuses to dismiss the idea. We’re not so committed to the truth that we readily accept a challenge to our worldview.

“If you’re a Democrat and you catch a Republican lying, you’ll just be appalled,” Shenkman says. “But if you’re a Republican and a Republican gets caught in a lie, your partisan brain will kick into action, you’ll think up a million reasons why this person really didn’t lie.”

What’s more, the distance between political figures and the electorate means we struggle to recognize deception. Humans’ abilities to recognize lies developed at a time when we lived in far smaller groups in close proximity to each other, and such judgments simply don’t work as well when scrutinizing brief, distant, scripted media appearances.

If this sounds dpressing, Shenkman adds that we have the means, through culture and education, of countering our instincts. He points out that in May 1916, 15,000 gathered to watch Jesse Washington lynched in Waco, Texas. In the 100 years since, education has overridden our primordial fear of outsiders so that American mobs no longer delight in such cruelty. “We’re not slaves to our instincts,” says Shenkman. “We do have higher-order cognitive thinking.”